fencing in Paris
I was walking by the Seine when I saw them - children in masks and tabards practising l'escrime. I think it was a first attempt for them. The instructors explained the rules, made sure the kits fitted, furnished the children with soft swords and set them off.
Worried that my interest would be misinterpreted, I explained that I fenced at home and added, wistfully, that I wished I could join in. The instructor sympathised and said that, if I found another adult, I too could fence.
It would have been good to fence in Paris by the Seine, even with a play-sword, but I was walking alone and wasn't sure of the etiquette for challenging a stranger to a duel. (I also feared I might do rather badly.) So after watching some more, I headed off, walking almost the full length of Paris Plage - the summer beach that closes a main road in Paris so that Parisiens can exercise or bask in the sun.
It was my second day in Paris. The night before I'd visited the Comedie Francaise to see their production of Cyrano de Bergerac. I'd been rereading the play in French since I boarded the Eurostar and was glad I'd done so - I can read French fairly easily but was out of practice at dealing with the speed of the spoken language.
I've seen Cyrano on stage before, notably with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack, as well as seeing the film with Gerard Depardieu. But this production was different. The British productions I've seen have worked to establish the 17th century detail and have tried to create an entirely realistic setting, even though the play is - I hate to admit it - not entirely plausible and the characters speak in verse. I'd expected something similar at the Comedie Francaise, which used to have a reputation as a guardian of tradition - or, to put it another way, as a producer of staidly conventional productions. The photos outside warned me to expect something different. Some of the characters seemed to be wearing top hats and surely Roxane was flying ...
Of course, the French have a greater familiarity with Cyrano and other French classics than the British do and I imagine the play is performed much more frequently in France. Directors and companies are bound to discover new ways of presenting it, just as British (and other) directors explore Shakespeare in different ways. At first it was strange to see Cyrano at the theatre encountering 19th century gentlemen, but it connected the play to the time of its author, Edmond Rostand. The production explored layers in the play, showing stage pictures which presented the emotion of the characters, so that Roxane really did fly when listening to Cyrano's words on her balcony. The buildings retreated and she hovered ecstatically in mid-air. (Later she flew in a more familiar sense, arriving at the siege with Ragueneau in a primitive flying machine.)
There's one scene in Cyrano which I've never really enjoyed before - the scene in which Cyrano converses with de Guiche about the moon so as to delay him while Roxane marries Christian. But in this production, Michel Vuillermoz as Cyrano was enthralling in his comic techniques, which seemed to draw on traditions going back to commedia dell'arte. The production as a whole made more of the comic elements than I expected. It was moving too - and for the first time I really felt for Christian, in love with Roxane and frustrated by his lack of eloquence.
While in most production Cyrano has been handsome apart from his long nose, at the Comedie Francaise, the contrast between Cyrano and Francoise Gillard's Roxane was so clear that his love for her really did seem hopeless from the start. The miracle was her final realisation that she had loved Cyrano for his language.
But even so, as he dies, Cyrano sees himself only as what he lacks - the genius of Molière and the beauty of Christian: "Molière a du génie et Christian était beau!" In his final line, Cyrano links himself only to the white plume of the Gascony cadets - his panache.
I'd have liked more on-stage fencing, of course, but that's almost always the case. It was a wonderful evening and I'll try to write more about it elsewhere, when I have time.